Great Stories Throughout The Ages!
The ‘Roar On The Shore’ Was Born
(Publisher’s note: To mark next April’s 40th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the Business Journal has teamed up with the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach to present a series of articles highlighting America’s #1 street race.)
By Gordon Morris - Staff Writer
Grand Prix Association
December 17th, 2013 – The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach – celebrating its 40th annual running April 11-13 – had its beginning in the imagination of a Long Beach travel agent.
In 1973, Chris Pook, a native of England with a love of motorsports, thought it would be a good way to boost the image and popularity of Long Beach by staging “Monaco West,” a major auto race through the city streets, in the shadow of the Queen Mary and along the city’s beautiful shoreline.
A Formula One car roars past former theaters on Ocean Boulevard
in 1976. From 1975 through 1982, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long
Beach went up Pine Avenue, along Ocean Boulevard, down Linden
Avenue (that became known as the Linden Leap as cars came off the
ground) and along Shoreline Drive. Brian Redman was the winner of
the Formula 5000 test race in September 1975. On March 28, 1976,
the first Formula One race was held on the city streets of
Downtown Long Beach.
(Grand Prix Association of Long Beach photograph)
It was a tough sell. Naysayers and doubters abounded. But Pook persisted, gathering a steering committee that included great racing names like Dan Gurney, former world driving champion Phil Hill and Riverside raceway president Les Richter, as well as a financial officer named Jim Michaelian, who today is the president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach.
Among the many problems facing the group was financing the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix. Ultimately, more than $700,000 was raised by selling common stock shares – at $250 per share in blocks of 20. In addition, a group of Long Beach citizens formed the Committee of 300, a non-profit organization whose efforts on a variety of fronts continue today, with C300 members instrumental in hosting cocktail parties, grandstand ushering, VIP transportation, press and media assistance and other key facets of race weekend success.
The Long Beach Grand Prix Association was open for business.
An application for a Formula 5000 race was quickly approved by the Automobile Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS). That was followed by formal approval for the proposed 2.21-mile, 16-turn racing circuit, originally laid out by Pook and Gurney, by the all-powerful Federation Internationale de L’Automobile in France.
More than $500,000 of the seed money went to track modification and safety systems, including nearly five miles of concrete barriers, debris fencing, 25,000 tires for energy-absorbing tire piles and 2,500 oil drums filled with sand. Course modifications were not completed until September 24 – two days prior to official racing practice.
The first Long Beach Grand Prix race weekend was, compared to the upcoming race in April, a pretty basic affair: a 5,000-meter foot race, jet ski demonstration on Rainbow Lagoon, motorcycle demonstration . . . and the race.
(By comparison, the upcoming 40th Annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will feature six racing series – including two NIGHTS of racing – free concerts featuring star entertainers, a sprawling Lifestyle Expo in the Convention Center and much more!)
And, even as far back as 1975, the race proved a magnet for stars of the entertainment and racing world alike. A special pre-race box lunch Kickoff Party attracted Gov. Jerry Brown (who flew in especially for the occasion), Indianapolis 500 great Peter DePaolo and film star Janet Leigh.
The 28 drivers who qualified for the 50-lap inaugural event included many internationally famous racing names: Brian Redman (the reigning Formula 5000 champion), Al Unser, David Hobbs, Jody Scheckter, Gordon Johncock, George Follmer, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Danny Ongais and Benny Scott.
Plus, a diminutive Italian-American named Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner who, in later years would prove instrumental in the race’s continuing success.
Toyota also made its first appearance as part of race weekend, supplying three Celica sedans for a special “match race” just prior to the Formula 5000 race, in which Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and Graham Hill “battled it out” for three laps before finishing – surprisingly! – in a dead heat.
The 50-lap feature race belonged to Brian Redman. Al Unser started on the pole and led the first two laps before Tony Brise passed him. Mario Andretti passed Brise for the lead on lap 17 and led for 12 laps before Brise again took command.
Redman, driving the Boraxo Lola T332, ran in the top three for 17 laps, before overtaking Brise on lap 35. He was never headed, beating Vern Schuppan to the checkered flag by almost 30 seconds. Eppie Wietzes was third, with Chris Amon and David Hobbs rounding out the top five.
Andretti fell victim to transmission problems and finished 13th, while Unser exited on lap 17 with suspension woes. The win wrapped up Redman’s second consecutive Formula 5000 championship.
His victory was witnessed by more than 46,000 “official” spectators, with countless others watching from yachts in the harbor and business and apartment buildings around the course.
The Long Beach Grand Prix had arrived. Whether it was here to stay was another matter.
Building on its momentum, the Grand Prix Association staged its first Formula One race a scant six months later. Switzerland’s Clay Regazzoni steered his Ferrari clear of some early-lap attrition and went on to beat teammate Niki Lauda and Tyrrell driver Patrick Depailler to the checkered flag.
Attendance was up significantly – 60,000 people enjoyed the first Formula One race on the city's streets – and the future looked bright. It was, however, misleading.
Behind the scenes, dark financial and political clouds were gathering as the Grand Prix Association planned the 1977 event. The race would need a savior.
On April 3, 1977, it got one.
(Part II: How one of the greatest drivers in racing history propelled the Grand Prix to great success.)